Delmore Schwartz and Lou Reed: The Odd Couple

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When I first heard that Lou Reed was influenced by the poet Delmore Schwartz, I was very happy.  I love their work and I have been looking to write on the possible relationship between Reed’s music and Schwartz’s poetry for a while.  With the passing of Lou Reed, this thought has crossed my mind more than once over the last few days.  To my surprise, I noticed – just this morning – that The Jewish Philosophy Place had posted a blog entry on Lou Reed and Delmore Schwartz.    The entry didn’t look into how Reed may have been influenced by Schwartz; it simply noted that Lou Reed majored in English at Syracuse University where Zachary Braiterman, the author of the Jewish Philosophy Place Blog, teaches.  Regardless, his blog entry prompted me to return to Schwartz’s work and to think about how it might relate to Reed’s music.

I don’t want to go in depth about this or that influence on Reed, so much as point out their shared interest in irony and the comedic.  What I love about their humor is that it doesn’t come from a high place that looks condescendingly on this or that target, so much as from an awareness of their own odd predicament in a world that is and is not theirs.  Their fiction, poetry, and lyrics didn’t so much provide them with a form of redemption so much as a way of reflecting on their comic/odd relationship with America, their parents, and their dreams.  They were both outsiders and regardless of their successes I can’t help but think that they thought of themselves as failures.  Yet, in the spirit of their art – and in the spirit of the schlemiel – this reflection wasn’t tragic so much as comic.  They shared the realization that they were the “odd one’s out” and in this we can say that they are an “odd couple” of sorts.

In his Foreword to the Delmore Schwartz’s collected stories, Irving Howe takes note of how the danger of addressing Delmore Schwartz is that one might get caught up in his sad life and miss his wonderful fiction and poetry.  In the process, Schwartz risks becoming “the subject of a lurid cultural legend.”  Nonetheless, Howe points out how Schwartz’s story is an American story of going in the opposite direction of the American dream – from success to failure: “The image of the artist who follows a brilliant leap into success  with a fall into misery and squalor is deeply credited, even cherished in our culture.”

Howe points out that Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” found an odd location in the first issue of the new Partisan Review in 1937.   It was the only story in the collection and it appeared right in the beginning.  Howe tells us that when he first read the story he experienced the “shock of recognition.”  What took Howe aback was the fact that the narrator, who sees his entire life pass before him on a movie screen, screams back at the screen when he sees his parents getting married: “Don’t do it. It’s not to late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”  Howe tells us that when he read it for the first time he deeply identified with Schwartz’s “cry against the mistakes of the past.”

When Howe reread the story, he found not just a protest against history but also a protest against existence.  But this voice wasn’t so much a voice of an existentialist as a voice “at home with the speech of people not quite at home with English speech.”  In other words, Howe found in Schwartz the struggles that were familiar to children of Immigrants (a theme I have been discussing a lot on this blog vis-à-vis Gary Shteyngart’s work).

In Schwartz’s work, Howe finds “the pathos and comic hopelessness of the conflict between immigrant Jewish families and their intellectual children”(ix).     He also finds the “frantic mixture of idealism and ambition, high seriousness and mere seriousness.”  The “mere seriousness” was also used as invective against New York intellectuals.  Howe says his criticisms were “bitter and..sometimes nasty.”    But, all in all, his words “created communities” and “floundering intellectuals.”  They indicated a “strong awareness of the sheer foolishness of existence, the radical ineptitude of the human creature.”  But he didn’t exclude himself from this foolishness and often played the fool.  In doing so, he was able to surprise his audience and evoke an awareness of the “ridiculousness of….everything”:

The persona of buffoonery, which goes perfectly well with a sophisticated intelligence, brings with it some notable dangers, but at its occasional best it enabled Schwartz to catch his audience off guard, poking beneath the belt of its dignity, enforcing the shared ridiculousness of….I guess, everything.  (xi)

All of this, Howe claims, comes out of Schwartz’s “anti-rhetoric.”  This, he claims, was a “deliberate mimicry of immigrant speech.”  And in this gesture, we find his sad and odd humor at work.

One story that really brings this out is “America! America!”  In this piece, the narrator, using his anti-Rhetoric (which mocks an English adapted by immigrants), introduces us to “Shenandoah Fish.”  He comes back from Paris and, in contradistinction to his American-immigrant parents, he was “not troubled by his idleness.”  The narrator tells us that he enjoys “two months of idleness” but this enjoyment starts to evaporate when he experiences a new “emotion”:

The emotion of a loss or lapse of identity. “Who am I?  what am I?” Shenandoah began once more to say to himself, and although he knew very well that this was only the projection of some other anxiety…nonetheless the intellectual criticism of his own emotions was as ever to no avail whatever. (11)

The comic aspect of this can be found in the fact that the narrator states things in a plain-American style (one which Howe finds to be a “mimicry of (English) immigrant speech”).  The narrator states, in simple declarative sentences, that Fish didn’t like the Baumann’s (family friends who chased after money and success):

The important thing in insurance was to win one’s way into the homes and into the confidences of other people.  Insurance cannot be sold as a grocer or druggist sells his goods. (12)

The descriptions of the Baumanns as the paradigmatic Jewish-American-Immigrant family, while simple, are demeaning.  By using this anti-Rhetoric Mr. Baumann comes across as a monster.  And although they “like” fish, it seems he doesn’t like them. And he doesn’t seem to like their children who all seem so perfect.  All of this indicates that he sees himself as the odd one out: he can’t become an American; at least, not like the Baumann’s or their children.

However, we learn that Baumann has an “idle son” named “Sydney.”  Fish identifies with him in some way.  Toward the end of the story, we learn of Baumann’s relationship to Syndey, which Fish’s mother recounts to him.  After hearing it, Fish feels abstract and removed from this world that he had left for Paris and returned to; he sees much of this world, which he had missed, as a “caricature, and an abstraction.”  However, instead of being repulsed, we learn from the narrator that Fish wishes he could have “seen these lives form the inside, looking out”(32).

Following this twist in the plot, the narrator tells us that he now feels his connection to the immigrant Jews:

And now he felt for the first time how closely bound he was to these people.  He felt that the contemptuous mood which had governed him as he listened was really self-contempt and ignorance.  He thought that his own life invited the same irony. (32)

He looks in the mirror and sees himself and the moment he is living in as ridiculous and a failure.  But the point I want to make is that he sees this all against the fact that he shares so much with the people he originally despised.  He wonders how his children will see him.  Will they see him as a schlemiel?  How does he stand in relation to the future?

Schwartz ends this short story with a reflection on his schlemielkeit, which is based on the fact that “no one truly exists in the real world”:

No one truly exists in the real world because no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back, and all the foolishness which the future will bring him. (33)

This realization teaches us that, in relation to others and to the future, in relation to that which transcends him, he, like a schlemiel, has no world.  In this realization, he discovers that he is not the only “odd one out.”

I hear this story put to words in Lou Reed’s song “Perfect Day.”  It’s odd appeal to the other discloses something that Fish and the narrator of “America! America!” were acutely aware; namely, that we don’t really know who we are to others and that “all they say behind his back” and the “future” itself will only bring more “foolishness.” Regardless, I think Howe is correct: this kind of realization comes to Fish, the narrator, and Schwartz by way of being the child of Immigrants, by virtue of being between two worlds where one’s identity is constantly at stake.  The day Fish comes to his realization is far from a “perfect” day, but, as he realizes, this is the way every day is and will be for him…until he dies.

May Lou and Delmore – an “odd couple” – rest in peace…they no longer have to look in the mirror and  wonder about who or what they are….

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